Sunday, November 21, 2010

Whither Libraries?

The convergence of planning, budgetary constraints and the prospects of another portentous fiscal year in 2011-2012 (see the recent New London Day article “Norwich Budget Picture is Grim”) has heightened my awareness of the challenges and options confronting public libraries. The challenges, fiscal matters aside, reflect several factors, not the least of them being the expectations of four generations of customers spanning those, to employ a convenient metaphor, raised on the card catalog to 60 million Millennials whose world is fully digitized and who may find no need for traditional library services. We are reminded that our traditional users and the service models designed for their needs are both on the wane, that circulation of analog materials (think books and other hard copy formats) has declined annually since about 1997, and that even notoriously sclerotic bureaucracies at the state and federal level are abandoning their paperwork bulwarks for new entrenchments based on digital forms and correspondence. M.I.T.’s Nicholas Negroponte forecasts the demise of the analogue book in five years, and, one might reasonably extrapolate the disappearance of print repositories not many years hence.
On the other hand, warnings abound about the pernicious results of the decline of print and the ensuing retreat of literacy. Two of my favorite jeremiads are taken from Chris Hedges book “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle” and Thomas Frank’s essay “Bright Frenetic Mills” in the December 2010 edition of Harper’s Magazine. Hedges book is deeply discomforting, but I share his concerns and recommend it to those who are disillusioned by the apotheosis of spectacle and other mechanisms that divert us from confronting the economic, environmental, political and moral collapse. A particularly resonant comment for those of us raised in an analog world appears towards the end of the book, “The more we distance ourselves from a literate, print-based world, a world of complexity and nuance, a world of ideas, for one informed by comforting, reassuring images, fantasies, celebrities, and a lust for violence, the more we are destined to implode.” I do not believe that the evolution of digital formats portends the end of the world as we know it, but I do worry over the tangible evidence of a growing preference for the “comfort, reassurance and beauty of illusion.”
Frank is more directly concerned with the decline in quality journalism in its traditional forms, replaced by news gathering motivated by two factors, “what people are searching for on Google and what advertisers might pay to associate themselves with a given topic.” More specifically he fears that “professional news gathering organizations can no longer be supported by the for-profit system.” The digital replacements, the proliferation of tweets and blog posts and general techno-optimism, he opines, obscures what is actually happening in the world:
“So powerful is our desire to believe in the benevolent divinity of the technology that it cancels out our caution…We have trouble grasping that the Internet might not bring only good; that an unparalleled tool for enlightenment and research and transparency might also bring unprecedented down-dumbing; that something that empowers the individual might also wreck the structures that have protected the individual for decades.”
What of the public library’s role in addressing the challenges posed by this tumultuous, fractious environment and competing perspectives?
First, to cite Dr. Steve Matthews, Library Specialist, Utah State Library (USL), Salt Lake City "[p]ublic libraries have NOT figured out that the 21st Century patron does not need 20th Century library services. Unless we want to see brick & mortar libraries go the way of the rotary dial telephone, the transistor radio, and the cathode ray tube, we need to understand the “new” library patron and adapt library services to meet their interests, because they do not appear to have library service “needs” and will not seek services from public libraries!” This rings true, although it does not mean the jettisoning of our traditional formats and patron services. The requests for print materials remains strong, and despite its slow devolution into a hackneyed cliché, there is considerable truth in the observation “everything is not on the Internet.” Neither is it in digital format, and it is certainly not accessible without a degree of literacy and acquired research skills. We cannot assume that the critical thinking skills necessary to separate good information from bad are an integral part of school curricula.

Equally salient, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation released a sweeping report titled “Informing Communities — Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age.” which concludes the health of America’s democracy and communities rests on plugging troubling gaps between the nation’s information haves and have-nots. Access to broadband Internet, for example, is a luxury for most low-income households. And that access gap leaves many on the political, social and economic sidelines. To that might be added access to information regardless of format, at no or minimal cost.

These are not definitive answers to my initial query, “Whither Libraries?” and both perceived threats and opportunities are clear. At the moment, there are no simple answers, certainly no one source of information, or one service model supplanting the general commitment to high quality. As our planning continues, and we assess the perspectives offered by Hedges, Negroponte, Frank, Matthews, our patrons, staff and board I look forward to presenting more reports on what we discover and how it informs our thinking.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Planning: For Now and for the Future

Over the past month the library has engaged in the first steps of a new strategic planning process. One of the key components of the planning process is the recognition that the library is serving five distinct generational groups whose needs and expectations bear distinct imprimaturs. To quote Dr. Steve Matthews, Library Specialist, Utah State Library and author of the 21st Century Library Blog:

“Ten years into the 21st Century, public libraries are still predominantly providing “traditional” library services for the “Great Generation” patrons and toddlers who make up a large segment of our users. We also provide services for “Traditional” [Digital Fugitive] patrons, the 76 million “Baby Boomers” many of whom are “Digital Immigrants” … who may need help acquiring information in a digital world. What can/should 21st Century librarians do for them?
Where does this broad spectrum of patrons [Digital Fugitive to Digital Native] fit within the “library service response” framework? Does it? Do we need to revise that framework? How do we span the broad spectrum of services from traditional to digital to meet the needs of these diverse patrons? Do we? Should we? How do we, as a profession, transition from library-centered services to patron [customer]-centered services? What do we need to know, and where do we get the knowledge?”

Pertinent questions indeed. We serve multiple library constituencies, and while all deserve the best services possible the means employed are evolving rapidly. How we provide excellent service which satisfies the diverse requirement of our customers is central to the future of the Otis library and its status as a community asset.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Our Mission

Otis Library Mission Statement
“The Otis Library provides free and open access to information, ideas, and services that anticipate our community’s personal, educational, and professional needs. The library enriches our region by maintaining a safe and welcoming environment and by offering resources that promote lifelong learning.”

Our mission statement mandates that Otis Library create environments where all residents feel safe, smart, and comfortable. These are estimable goals, but not as simple to define as the words may imply. For example, traditionally libraries have been equated with information. Yet designating libraries as “the information place” is limiting and arguably leads to a narrow definition of what libraries and librarians do. We are certainly a repository of information, which librarian Walt Crawford defines as services designed to “bring resources to people for their education, enlightenment and entertainment.” That sounds very much like the work of Otis Library and its staff. To that I would also echo Crawford’s addendum that “we serve as a safety net for the displaced and a primary place where young people learn to love reading and knowledge.” That too describes the Otis Library. Both elements allude to the principal reasons we are on Main Street rather than some leafier thoroughfare. We are situated to stimulate interest in the downtown area, to be accessible by foot and mass transit as well as automobile. Our mission statement also describes a community centered library-a community hub-strategically placed to encourage the economic and cultural renascence of the city center. These individual elements as a whole are the substance of what we are, what we do, how we place ourselves in our surroundings and the lives of our patrons.
Our mission is service to our community in many forms. The niches we fill, the ways in which we measure and incorporate community needs into our planning, and by so doing remain relevant to those we serve reflect both traditional library roles and those required of a responsive, engaged community asset.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Libraries, education, and more

A very brief posting today. During the past week I read several articles that proclaimed the importance of education in a democratic society. One included a quote from Franklin D. Roosevelt, "Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education." Elsewhere, similar sentiments were expressed in slightly different language. Clearly libraries were not expressly referred to by the late president or the pundits who echoed this theme, but it takes no stretch of the imagination or definition to include them. Yet somehow, without appreciating the irony libraries are excluded from the definition of educational institution when it comes to funding. It would be easy enough to excoriate the officials who determine funding priorities for not recognizing the value of public libraries. There is enough vitriol and incivility available on line and in print to make that sort of response unappealing. The best remedies are positive and proactive. Public libraries "pick up the slack" when school libraries are eliminated, funding for after school programs reduced and alternative sites sought for extracurricular activities. These are cogent reminders of the utility of public libraries. When funds for mandatory summer reading materials disappear the public library fills the void. When children and young adults need a safe after school environment and internet access the library answers both needs. It is equally salient to remind community leaders that libraries, far from isolating themselves from public dialogue and community matters avidly engage in civic culture, be it envisioning a community's future through cooperative long range planning or assessing the impact of new parking regulations on the local business district. There are myriad other ways-adult education, services to new Americans for example- in which libraries contribute to community health and well being, and extend the definition of education. Reminders to that effect are essential and positive examples of the public libraries contributing to the common weal.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

New patrons, New uses

Several weeks into the summer and staff members are reporting a noticeable increase in the numbers of people-family units, parent(s) and child, child and older sibling-who are now arriving in the morning and spending the day at the library. “Noticeable increase” is one of those nebulous terms that are anathema to me, but we are only now beginning to quantify the numbers and trying to better describe the composition of these groupings. What I can say categorically, is that these are not single adults “without visible means of support”. We are also seeing unprecedented growth in attendance at children's programming. Historically these are among our most popular programs, but attendance has grown rapidly. Two recent programs for which we anticipated 80 participants attracted 250 and 180 patrons. Other manifestations are a surge in new library card applicants, and many new faces in the audiences. There is also anecdotal evidence that the programs and the library represent a safe harbor for parents and children. Some of the day long stays are directly related to a lack of other options. For example, one young patron confided that they were having financial difficulties at home resulting in interruptions of utilities and phone service. Another young patron described moving from temporary residence to temporary residence and interludes with friends and relatives. Hardly definitive indicators of trends, but I will not be surprised if these are evidence of both increased use and unconventional uses of community assets like the library.

My larger point in submitting these observations is this: I believe we are witnessing evidence of larger and arguably grave conditions affecting the community. Some of our increased usage can plausibly be attributed to reduced personal circumstances, and reduced access to other venues such as recreational programs, the former YMCA, school based libraries and other ancillary activities. Also I do not want to ignore those seeking refuge from the prolonged bout of hot humid weather. I am glad we have the flexibility to adjust to changing needs, but also want to ensure that the larger, portentous community effects are acknowledged and addressed.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Libraries as Community Assets

My new mantra for the Otis Library, or rather my renewed emphasis is on the library as a community asset. That sounds obvious, but observing the state of libraries in other regions there seems to be a significant gap between the acknowledgment and substantive support. Among the more ominous signs of ambivalence: Recent articles on the gutting of the New Jersey library system, including, potentially, elimination of all statewide library programs and services; the closure of the Hood River Oregon Library system, after 98 years of continuous operation,the closure of two of the libraries serving Plainfield, Connecticut, recent turmoil in Pennsylvania, and articles with unsettling titles such as Why Closing More Public Libraries Might Be The Best Thing (...Right Now).
There was a time, not that long ago, when the answer to the question "are libraries community assets?" would have been unequivocally yes. However, if actions-like those cited above-speak louder than words, there is cause for concern. Some of this seems rooted in the glib assertion that everything is available on the Internet. I have addressed that in other blogs, and the arguments against that assumption have not changed. I would only add, to paraphrase a recent post by Delia Lloyd, the Internet is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to research skills.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Making a case for the Otis Library

Last night was the second public hearing on the proposed 2010-2011 budget for the city of Norwich. There were large and passionate groups opposed to the level funding of the school budget and school closures, and the cuts inflicted on the social services budget, in particular the reductions at the Rose City Senior Center.

It was also an opportunity to restate our case for better library funding.I have taken the liberty of reproducing my statement to the city council in full for your perusal:

To the Norwich City Council:
First, I want to thank you for your service to the Norwich community. Fiscal oversight is never an easy responsibility, and it is even more burdensome in a difficult and contentious environment such as the one we currently face.
In crafting a final budget document for the 2010-2011 fiscal years you are faced with no easy choices, and the insuperable problem of having too few resources to satisfy the needs of every constituency.
I have attended most of the departmental budget presentations and the public hearings and heard cogent cases made for departments without whose collaboration and support the library could not function. I will not enumerate them all, but I must mention the Department of Public Works, the Norwich Police Department, Fire Department, the Department of Human Services, school department and the Norwich Parks and Recreation Department. Each renders invaluable service to the Norwich Community, and at some point during the past 12 months each has assisted the library as a service provider or collaborator.
Clearly, the library represents but one part of a complex budgeting equation, and will be judged by a set of values and priorities you must carefully consider. Perhaps one of the dilemmas in making a decision about the library’s place in the budgeting equation is that we do not fit into one easily identified category, like public safety or a school system. Art Brodsky the communications director for Public Knowledge, a Washington, D.C.-based public interest group, summed up this conundrum nicely: libraries serve a range of purposes - they help teach children to read, they help students work on projects, they provide meeting space for tutoring, they provide Internet access. They serve students, seniors, immigrants. They provide assistance to the unemployed. Libraries combine education, workforce development, socialization, recreation. But they aren't the school board, or a social services agency, and so they generally get buried in the larger budgets.
As you deliberate, I would like you to consider Brodsky’s comments and the following observations: In one forum or another I have quoted at length from local, state and national indicators substantiating the use of the library by the public. I have referred to quantifiable increases in visits, circulation and library card applications. Of equal salience, in a community where the poverty level is above the state average, over 11% compared to 7.8% across Connecticut, the need for our services is clear. It is equally clear that the envisioned reductions to the library roll back our capacity to provide services to the parlous conditions at the beginning of this decade, a time when the library facility was cramped, the collections outdated, and per capita support anemic.
Every community has a unique base of assets upon which to build its future. The Otis Library is part of Norwich’s asset base, along with schools, parks, social service organizations, and hospitals. The library is a visible and formal part of the community fabric. Reductions at the levels contained in the current draft budget diminish both the library and the community it serves. Diminished as well are the incentives for future community stability and growth, for newcomers to select Norwich as their home and for current residents to maintain allegiance to this city. I hope, therefore, that you will revisit the proposed budget and contemplate its effect on our asset base, the funds allocated to our asset base generally and the library specifically.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Libraries:Then, Now, and in the Future

I recently picked up a copy of Main Street, Sinclair Lewis's 1920 novel of life in the small Midwestern town of Gopher Prairie. What resonated with me, aside from the many personalities still recognizable 90 years hence, were the pungent comments about urban libraries. Even then, apparently, the diversity of urban patrons and their proclivities invited reproofs from commentators. When Miss Villets, the Gopher Prairie librarian disdains library methods in large cities-St. Paul, Minnesota specifically-because they afforded shelter to "tramps and all sorts of dirty persons practically sleeping in the reading-rooms" there is a tone familiar to current patrons and staff. Mercifully, some of her more belligerent comments, those about turning libraries into nursing homes and kindergartens for example, have given way to a more expansive and inclusive vision of what public(s) constitute the modern library's constituency. Very likely Miss Villets would approach apoplexy at the diversity of programs and active public engagement encouraged by the Otis Library and embedded in its mission statement. The ability of libraries in general, and this library in particular to evolve and adapt, to provide essential services and embrace new community roles gives me hope for the future.

Libraries are often labeled as quality of life enhancements, especially when the subject involves money and support. There is an unspoken assumption in that label, that perhaps things that promote quality of life are somehow less essential, less worthy of serious consideration than infrastructure, safety, and transportation. Were that so, in a harsh financial climate the reductions to the library, as articulated in the 2010-2011 city budget might appear tactically prudent. Strategically they are arguably imprudent. Every community has a unique base of assets upon which to build its future, to attract new residents and businesses and maintain the fealty of those currently situated. The Otis Library is part of Norwich’s asset base, along with schools, parks, social service organizations, and hospitals. The library is a visible and formal part of the community fabric. Reductions at the levels recommended-$100,000- for the forthcoming fiscal year both diminish the library and the community it serves. Diminished as well are the incentives for future community stability and growth.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Briefly Noted

On Friday I read a provocative article by Craig Mod entitled "Books in the Age of the iPad". It was well balanced, and a welcome relief from the hubris of the "print is dead" crowd and the angst of those who foresee the imminent disappearance of the public library and print. I do not happen to see either as imminent, although I do believe that libraries need to examine their missions and their roles as community resources. That is an opportunity implicit in Mod's article. I am also struck by his version of the book's future, one in which the formless books-the airport paperback to coin a phrase-"the book printed without consideration of form or sustainability or longevity" are the domain of the e-reader, while print volumes "embrace their physicality — working in concert with the content to illuminate the narrative."

These will be books:

◦Confident in form and usage of material.
◦That exploit the advantages of print.
◦Are built to last.

The results are, as Mod see it:

◦The Books We Make will feel whole and solid in the hands.
◦The Books We Make will smell like now forgotten, far away libraries.
◦The Books We Make will be something of which even our children — who have fully embraced all things digital — will understand the worth.
◦The Books We Make will always remind people that the printed book can be a sculpture for thoughts and ideas.

"Anything less than this will be stepped over and promptly forgotten in the digital march forward." There is some way to go until we reach this point, and I encourage you to read carefully the many comments elicited by Mod's argument. There is still plenty of room for debate, as witnessed by the points and counterpoints offered by the respondents

Monday, February 15, 2010

Libraries and Communities

Today's holiday offers a bit of thinking space, and an opportunity to comment on libraries and their roles in the community. In the case of the Otis Library, this involes a broader involvement in community affairs, and a willingness to act as an agent of change. For example, the library now works with the Norwich Community Development Corporation, Norwich city government and other stakeholders to develop an economic vision and plan for Downtown Norwich. Keep in mind that when the library decided to remain at its downtown site, one of the considerations was its ability to generate foot traffic and act as a catalyst for a renascent downtown. It is our responsibilty to help shape the municipality that Norwich residents desire. That means grappling with tough and sensitive issues of who populates the business district, what other services are present and who do they attract. The Otis Library cannot remain aloof from these matters or consciously ignore them. We must also acknowledge that finding solutions to seemingly intractable problems-empty real estate and a transient population to suggest two-requires collaboration and community engagement, the assembling of facts,planning and the foreswearing of speculation in the guise of informed opinion. The library, as a center of community activity and a public forum has an critical role to play in this process.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Library as Thinking Space

It is snowing to beat the band today, with fierce winds and poor visibility. Rumor has it that a herd of Musk Ox has taken up residence downtown, but that remains unsubstantiated. The library is closed, as is most everything else hereabouts. This seemed like an opportune time to dig into the pile of library related articles I have been accumulating, and offer at least one of them for your further perusal. One that I especially enjoyed is Jessamyn West's interview with Jaron Lanier, author of You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (Library Journal, 2/1/2010). There are many good observations to read here, but my personal favorites are Lanier's comments on the role of libraries as thinking space. That is really a very old idea, and one we tend to downplay because of the connotations it evokes. The shushing librarian, the oppressive silence and implied or active censure of those who dare to speak above a whisper. Lanier rightly points out that we are in dire need of thinking space, a refuge from digital distraction, where you can focus and organize your thoughts, free from the distracting buzz and flash of everyday life. There ought to be space for reflection, one amenable to thinking, designed as an escape from the false paradigm that being "busy" is being productive.

This latter misconception recalls a comment in another article worth reading, Heather Havrilesky's "'Digital Nation": What has the Internet done to us?'(, 1/31/2010). Built around a critique of PBS's Frontline report "Digital Nation" which explores the side effects of "our digital immersion", Havrilesky quotes Sherry Turkle, director of MIT's Initiative on Technology and Self on the shortcomings of a plugged-in environment: "I've been busy all day and I haven't thought about anything hard, I mean the point of it is to be our most creative selves, not to distract ourselves to death." There should be room in our institutions to meet multiple requirements. Especially in a library like Otis, with patrons representing so many diverse needs, we will find ourselves balancing digital access with space for quiet contemplation and deliberation, and the desire for group interaction with individual pursuits. Identifying, assessing and responding to these challenges helps the library remain a dynamic and responsive institution, regularly in touch with the people it serves and changing community requirements.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Shifting priorities and the case for libraries

Sunday's New London Day contained an interesting piece on the front page. Entitled Buying Less, Doing More, the summary notes "Quietly but noticeably over the past year, Americans have rejiggered their lives to elevate experience over things." Among the experiences benefiting from this shift are spending time with family and friends, reading, and on hobbies. This is good news for libraries, which are designed to encourage communal activities, civic engagement and of course reading. Visit the library's home page and you will encounter reading groups for adults and teens, and story and craft activities for children. There is a link to a calendar filled with club, civic, and community events. I might add too that thanks to the support of the City of Norwich, Sachem Fund, the Friends of Otis Library, AHEPA, the Norwich Rotary Clubs and Kiwanis Club of New London, and generous individuals, there are new books and materials to read, watch and listen to.

When the library committed to maintaining its location in downtown Norwich these were the sorts of results envisioned. The Otis Library would be a destination, and a facilitator of the activities that make communities work. A library serves many functions, and its role as a forum, a gathering spot for community members to exchange ideas, interact, and learn are high on the list of priorities. I hope you will take advantage of the myriad opportunities at the library to engage with other residents in learning, discourse, and community enhancement.